Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Flight recap

All in all, I was quite satisfied with all the carriers I tried out on this trip.

Jet‘s international product blew me away, being probably the single best economy cabin I’ve tried anywhere, and I’d definitely like to try their J product someday. It’s a real shame that the hassles of Indian visas and airports mean that transiting via India to anywhere else is just not a sensible option…

I had high expectations for Etihad, and they were pretty much met, but I was a little disappointed in the ungenerous seat pitch (esp. on the A346) and the cumbersomeness of the IFE system. On the plus side, service was very good for economy, their hub AUH is not bad and is likely to soon get very much better, and their network is also growing furiously. The main downside really is the total lack of usable frequent-flyer miles usable anywhere other than EY.

Nas in Saudi was exactly what I expected from a low-cost carrier, perhaps even several degrees slicker than most. As miles aren’t a consideration for Saudi domestic flights, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

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Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Jeddah

Jeddah‘s King Abdulaziz International Airport has a bad rep, and on landing I could see why. We were bused into the terminal and let loose in the baggage claim area, which is split in two and entirely devoid of signage of any sort (except to note that porters are SR 10 and luggage carts are free), but the solitary moving belt drew the crowd and soon enough bags from RUH, mine among the first, started plopping onto it. I paused at the unmanned Supreme Commission for Tourism booth long enough to pick up a map in fractured English, then hopped on a taxi outside and headed to the Marriott. JED is supposed to have the same fixed-fare system as RUH, but here too there is zero signage showing the correct fares and I stupidly figured I could get it sorted out at the hotel. According to the net, SR 50 should be plenty, but the cabbie of course asked for SR 80 and wasn’t happy at being fobbed off with SR 60 — the standard fare in Riyadh, where it’s a longer distance to the airport. Grumble.

Bright and early at 6 AM in the morning, my alarm bell rung and I headed off to dive in the Red Sea. I’d booked with Desert Sea Divers who picked me up, packed 18 people on three boats and set off on the open ocean. Unsurprisingly, all fellow pax were expats, and it was fun to watch the abayas come off and reveal bikinis underneath. We cruised through the creek, passing resorts and palaces of increasing ludicrousness, and then headed out for an hour before hooking up next to the reef. The plan of the day was three dives, so I elected to sit out the first and deepest one (as it happens, I was later told it was the worst of the three), but I joined the second one… and… whoah.

Poking around the Chicken Wreck off Jeddah Lionfish off Jeddah

pictures courtesy of Marja-Leena Lehtola

I’ve dived 50 times in a dozen countries, but I’ve never seen something quite like the Chicken Wreck. Yes, it’s a wreck, once laden with frozen chickens (hence the name) and not even particularly big as far as these things go, but on this dive everything just clicked: 30+ meter visibility, the great looming shape of the wreck encrusted with marine life, plenty of fish, corals bursting with color thanks to the sunshine above… about the only downside was that I was wearing just a 3mm shorty and was freezing my pansy tropicalized ass off towards the end. I switched to my own 1mm diveskin for the last dive (in part due to reports of jellyfish), and it seemed a better choice: better a slightly cooler torso than keeping your arms and legs entirely exposed.

The third dive, too, was through some of the most remarkable coral I’ve ever seen, but unfortunately there was a distraction: my buddy, a morbidly obese Indian guy, with such a pair of man-boobs resting on his pregnant belly that I actually initially thought he was female. Now, there are plenty of well-insulated diving walruses out there, but this guy, despite holding PADI Rescue Diver certification (the highest non-divemaster rating), was probably the most incompetent diver I’ve ever had the mispleasure of partnering with. Yo-yoing wildly up and down with total lack of buoyancy control, smashing into and grabbing onto the corals, swimming way up ahead and ignoring the DM’s frantic banging on his tank, it appeared that the only skill he had mastered was mouth-breathing. I was rather relieved when he surfaced alive.

Fortunately, the other folks on the boat were rather better company, and I hit it off well enough with a blonde Finnish girl and a friendly Basque-Irish couple to arrange to meet them later in Riyadh (about which more later). Once back at the dive shop, a bit of surprise awaited though: I’d paid SR 250 (~US$65) for two dives, which was reasonable, but the shop charged SR 150 for the return transfer from the hotel; not entirely out of line, given that it’s a good 50 km away, but it would’ve been nice to mention this a little earlier. A quick meal of shwarma and Saudi champagne (soda and apple juice) later I crashed and slept until morning.

My second day in Jeddah was a Friday, which in retrospect was a little unfortunate, as nothing in the country stirs until the noon prayers are over. The Marriott obligingly gave me a late checkout, so I whiled away the heat of the day by the rather nice pool until driven out by a quadruplicate mosquecast of the noon sermon, and only headed out to al-Balad, the old town, around 4 PM when I figured the shops would be opening again.

Jeddah’s old town, or more specifically Souq al-Alawi, is the first place in Saudi where I felt like I could have been wandering in the souqs of Cairo, Tunis or East Jerusalem, if not quite as hectic or packed. Conical piles of colorful spices, the queasily intoxicating smells of Arab perfumes and incense, tailors and cobblers with piles of shoes and clothes… but what makes Jeddah stand out is the local style of architecture, with towering buildings (often five or six stories) built from coral and framed in wood painted brown or green. With the lanes rather too narrow to get about by car, they’d been spared from razing, but aside from a few beaten-up “Historic District” signs and a duly ignored English-language sign requiring visitors to register for photography permits, precious little had been done to maintain them. Nearly all were in an appalling state of disrepair, and quite a few were uninhabited and literally falling apart.

The al-Alawi Restaurant was closed (not unexpected; Saudis like to eat late), and I realized I’d better get a move on if I wanted to eat something before the first evening prayer, so I hotfooted out through the gold souq and into the modern part of al-Balad, where not a few shaven-headed US Marines were walking around souvenir shopping — the only other foreigners I’d seen in the area. Picking a large shopping mall at random, I headed to the top floor to find a deserted-looking foodcourt and a packed Filipino restaurant with the delightful name of Barrio Fiesta. Today, the fiesta was being celebrated not only with a string of Christm…err…secular tree lights, but strobe lights above the sign as well, so I decided to give the Pinoys a chance to tickle my tastebuds.

I asked the waiter what was the most popular item on the menu among locals, and after pondering a bit and confirming that I really did want their food as opposed to, say, a nice plate of fried rice, he suggested kare-kare. Having not the slightest idea of what it was, I readily agreed and awaited something different for a change. I wasn’t disappointed in that respect at least: kare-kare turned out to mean a peanut-based stew of oxtail, banana flower, bitter eggplant and string beans, a rather peculiar and, to me, rather unpalatable mix. Fortunately, I was also given a little pot of bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp paste) to go with it, and while Wikipedia notes that “to many Westerners unfamiliar with this condiment, the smell can be extremely repulsive“, I’ve spent long enough in South-East Asia to positively relish the salty-spicy kick it added. I wonder how this stuff would taste with kebabs and hummus?

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is not one of the world’s great airports by any measure, but its quirky terminal seemed downright snazzy after the swirling chaos of DEL. Midnight is rush hour at AUH, but I had no problems snagging a seat from where I could contemplate the utterly bizarre mushroom-shaped spout of lime green and blue tiling that dominates the terminal, although any notions of Zen serenity were blasted out of the water by the endless loop of really, really loud trilingual announcements about vol eh-ygrec trois-trois-cinq a Casablanca or whereever. We’d rolled past Etihad’s future home Terminal 3 on the way in, but despite a few planes parked up to it’s still several months away from completion and Abu Dhabi has, inevitably, already started designing an entirely new airport expressly designed to put those young whippersnappers in Dubai in their place.

Etihad’s slogan is “The Airline of Abu Dhabi”, which left me ruminating. Sure, that’s an undeniable fact, but what do they mean by it? If they mean that Etihad is good because it’s associated with Abu Dhabi, I don’t think that line of argument will quite fly, as for most people “Abu Dhabi” is the faintly ridiculous-sounding place in the middle of nowhere (see also: Timbuktu, Ouagadougou) where Garfield regularly mails obnoxiously cute kittens. Alternatively, they might mean that Abu Dhabi is good because its airline is Etihad, but this has pretty much the same problem — when I told a colleague that I was flying Etihad via Abu Dhabi, her genuine reaction was “Where the heck is Abu Dhabi, and what on earth is an Etihad?” (Etihad, for the record, is Arabic for “United”, and with Air Arabia and Emirates completes the trio of large airlines using all components of the name United Arab Emirates.) Either way, it’ll take another good ten years until these guys get over their name recognition problem…

At any rate, the booze selection in AUH Tax Free was pretty good, although obviously for this leg of the trip I had to limit myself to window-shopping. An hour before my flight the gae number popped up and I headed down to Gate 22, which turned out to be a bus lounge, dominated by a colorful but orderly procession of Indonesian ladies going to work in Saudi. In the bus on the way to the plane, one of the younger women knelt on the floor and wordlessly pressed her head into the lap of a motherly older veteran. For one, the terrors of the unknown; for the other, resignation to the known.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Delhi

It’s been a good nine months since I was last in Dilli, and I was quite amazed by the speed at which (some) things have progressed. The Metro extensions to Noida and Gurgaon, a few tentative rebar poking out from the ground in fall 2007, had sprouted into an almost unbroken row of lofty concrete pillars with viaduct cranes connecting the tops and station boxes starting to take shape — they just might make the 2010 deadline. The Great India Place in Noida and the MGF Metropolitan in Saket had both opened and finally given Delhi malls that wouldn’t look too much out of the place in Singapore. The amazingly banged-up super-high-floor city buses slaughering pedestrians on Delhi’s roads have been joined by a growing fleet of slick green low-floor buses, and the Bus Rapid Transit line from Moolchand to Ambedkar Nagar is set to open in a few months. NH-8 from Delhi to Gurgaon has finally opened and the slick swooping curves of the grade-separated intersections around Mahipalpur and the airport are an infinite improvement on the previous jams. Last but not least, the airport’s tentative renovations are now in full swing: the entire five kilometers from NH-8 to the current terminal is now one giant construction site with worker ants scurrying about building the new terminal, the third runway and the Airport Express line. What’s this place going to look like two years down the line when everything is complete for the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

On the flip side of the coin, nine months away from India was enough to tune my eye again to the daily weirdnesses of life in India. Zooming on an on-ramp to the DND Flyway, one of Delhi’s still regrettably few expressways, a wandering swami had decided that the side of the road, ten meters up in the air and inches away from speeding cars, would be a good place to build a bonfire and warm himself. Going to lunch at the Shipra Mall in Noida, a ridiculously pompous palace of consumerism decked out with statues and Romanesque pillars and consequently rather resembling a cross between a Las Vegas hotel and Bangkok massage parlor, had one of the lanes on its entry way under repair — so they’d thrown up a strand of barbed wire across the road, with somebody’s pants hanging in the middle so drivers would see it. On the way out, an empty field between the glass offices of the call centers and outsourcing labs was covered from end to end in cow patties, drying in the sun. Under the flyovers lurk Delhi’s underworld of dirty street kids and destitute beggars, naked toddlers with dust-caked hair running about the median between the roads.

And in the sterile comfort of the bland Sheraton, where a week’s stay costs about the same as a Tata Nano microcar, I flipped my TV to state broadcaster Doordarshan’s Sports channel in prime time and was treated to a rerun of the 2000 World Chess Championship, long ago live from Tehran — another vaguely funny reminder of how India’s well-meaning government continues to cripple the country through misguided initiatives. The week’s talk of the town was the LPG shortage, caused by government fixed rates making it unprofitable to supply, and the limited supplies thus being diverted to commercial use at Rs.600 each or the black market at as much as Rs.1000 a pop, instead of the heavily loss-making consumer rate of Rs.300. The government’s reaction? Raids against retailers to make sure they aren’t selling them on the black market or “hoarding”. Sigh.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Delhi, Riyadh, Jeddah and Janadriyah

This trip report is a followup to the original Wahhabalinese Adventures, detailing my second sojourn to the Magic Kingdom. I’ll be traveling a bit longer this time, and hence my agenda includes a little sightseeing and scuba diving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city and commercial capital.


This was supposed to be a straight Singapore-Saudi round-trip with a local round-trp thrown in.  However, two days before my planned departure I got an early-morning phone call, and by the end of it I’d changed my plans to head to Delhi for a week first instead. Our corporate travel agent, who are good at everything except finding cheap fares, first suggested a ridiculous SIN-DEL-BAH-RUH-JED-AUH-SIN routing on 9W/GF/SV/SQ that would’ve cost nearly US$3000, but Etihad’s remarkably helpful Singapore office managed to rebook me on DEL-RUH-SIN for barely a third of that — it actually ended up costing substantially less than my previous SIN-RUH return!  Here’s the final route:

Index

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Riyadh

CO-ORDINATES: (0,1)
ALLEGIANCE: Independent
TYPE: Isolationist Religious Enclave
GOVERNMENT: Religious Dictatorship
MAJOR IMPORTS: None
MAJOR EXPORTS: None
ILLEGAL GOODS: Animal Meat, Liquor, Narcotics, Animal Skins, Live Animals, Slaves, Luxury Goods, Hand Weapons, Battle Weapons, Nerve Gas, Robots, Radioactives

The van Maanens Star system is the home of a radical religious sect that believes in suffering as the key to salvation. Mining is done without machines, and any surplus money that is not needed to satisfy basic requirements like oxygen, food and water is burned in a sacred ceremony. The system is only accessible with a special permit.

Back when I was a kid, I used to play a lot of Elite, the now classic space trading game where you get to fly around the galaxy, buy and sell goods to strange aliens and occasionally blow them up. Elite’s universe is vast and intricate, with star systems divided by level of technological development, type of government, amount of crime and so on, but whether you wanted to trade in wheat, electronics or drugs and whether to try your luck in an industrial democracy or an agricultural anarchy was up to you — just fly in and dock.

But there was one exception: van Maanens star. Located just a hyperdrive stone’s throw from Sol, this “isolationist religious enclave” only allows visitors with a special permit, which is famously difficult to obtain: you’re only allowed in if you’ve proved your reputation and have a package to deliver. And even if they do let you in, they cut visitors no slack, with a lengthy list of restrictions banning goods like robots and animal meat that are allowed everywhere else in the universe.

Saudi Arabia has been my van Maanens star. I’ve been to Aqaba, Jordan, and gazed across the desert towards the barbed wire separating me from the forbidden kingdom. I’ve flown along the Persian Gulf, looking down at a string of lights along the forbidden coast. Once, in 2003, I even had a Saudi visa in my passport and was all set to go… when the mullahs decided that picture messages on mobile phones were sinful and torpedoed that project.

This time, it was for real. I disembarked into the surprisingly quiet terminal, got a stamp in my passport and a seemingly sincere welcome from a young, grinning immigration officer and clambered aboard a taxi for the trip to downtown Riyadh down an eight-lane highway, with palm trees and Gucci ads lining both sides and the occasional dun or white-colored building flying past in the night. And, like in Elite the first time I got that long-awaited permit and visited van Maanens, I somehow felt oddly disappointed: this is it? Just another Arab country and just another Arab city, just like Abu Dhabi or even Dubai?

However, Saudi Arabia turned out to be a little more than a few flipped bits in a video game’s configuration. Most of what you’ve heard is true: tne women really do have to wear the head-to-toe black abaya robes (not all veil their faces, but most do), alcohol really is banned (although 0% “malt beverages” do a brisk trade) and red paint really is applied on CD covers to give, say, the Pussycat Dolls more respectable necklines and hemlines. But while I knew men and women were segregated, I hadn’t realized how segregated: every restaurant, bank, shopping mall, food court counter and historical site was either divided into separate zones or separate times. Want to go check out the National Museum? You need to figure out not just when it’s open (daily), but when it’s open for men: Sun, Mon, Wed and Thu mornings or Tue afternoons only. I knew the Saudis took their Islam seriously, but I hadn’t realized how seriously: five times a day, everything, repeat, absolutely everything — shops, restaurants, banks, post offices, tourist sites — closes for prayer. Want to eat dinner? You need to plan to have it before 5:30, between 6 and 7, or after 7:30, as between those times, every place you could get food is closed. I’m still a little conflicted about how I feel about all this, so I’ll leave that for the next trip’s musings…

Another bit of a surprise, which I know will sound both offensive and obvious, is that Saudis look like terrorists. Offensive, because that should be a ludicrous stereotype to apply to 20 million people; yet obvious, because most of the 9/11 terrorists were devout Saudis, and hence in the West we associate the Osama bin Laden look — white robe, red checkered headdress, scraggly beard, leather sandals — with fanatical suicide bombers. I like to consider myself a pretty tolerant kind of guy, and have travelled in a fair few Arab countries before, but I was shocked and not a little ashamed at how often I at first got a visceral “eek!” reaction on spotting bin Laden or Ayman Zahawiri’s long-lost identical twin shopping at the Hyperpanda or behind the wheel of a taxi. Is that a bomb vest under his robe? Is he planning to drive me into a deserted alley and slit my throat?

Yet not once — not once! — was I made to feel anything less than welcome. Precisely because (white) foreigners are so uncommon, especially outside the confines of their housing compounds and five-star hotels, most people I met were friendly to a fault and brimming with curiosity. The three Saudi brothers running the little corner store where I did my daily shopping endeavoured to teach me Arabic, the Indians at the curry shop around the corner made sure I got an extra-large portion when I paid the paltry four riyals (US$1) for my meal, the post office clerk smilingly humored my request to add a few phrases in Arabic to a card, and on my last night I ended up sharing a plate of injera and wat with an Ethiopian cabbie, him refusing to accept any payment for a meal that cost him the equivalent of several hours’ takings. (He did leave the meter running while we ate, so it pretty much worked out the same.)

Riyadh is famously short on things to do, but work kept me busy enough that I only managed to sneak out once in the evening to climb up to the top of the Kingdom Centre, variously likened to a giant bottle opener or Pikachu, but in any case the tallest building in Saudi Arabia and quite a spectacular sight when lit up at night. Up top, connecting the two towers together at a height of 300m, is the Skybridge, where you can gaze on the bright lights of Riyadh and get some idea of how big the city is. Definitely worth the 25 riyals, and it’s probably the only skyscraper tourist trap in the world without a gift shop!

My last day was a Thursday, the Saudi equivalent of Saturday, and I had a three-hour window of opportunity for sightseeing in the morning, so I opted to check out the National Museum. And it is, it must be said, quite a spectacle: done up with the latest technology, there are so many video presentations and mini-theatres that you could probably spend a day in there doing virtual tours of Madein Saleh (the Saudi version of Petra) or watching re-enactments of the Prophet Mohammed’s battle of Medina. It wasn’t quite so much a museum as a propaganda exercise though: the display on plate tectonics started with a quote from the Quran, the history of the Sauds was rather airbrushed, and the display on the birth of Mohammed, reached from the clash and noise of the Jahiliyah (age of ignorance) by riding an escalator up into a room of soothing, pastel light while a choir of angels sings, has probably inspired a few conversions to Islam.

And then to the airport, which is a bit of an architectural masterpiece, but otherwise a remarkably boring place to wait any longer than necessary. Once through immigration, the international departure holding area has prayer rooms, two snack bars, two long-empty dusty rooms where the bookshop and souvenir stores used to be, and nothing else. At least there were power plugs if you pry up the little brass things on the floor…

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Dubai

The original plan had been just to do a simple transit in Dubai, but the flight I wanted on Tuesday was full — a good thing, in retrospect, as not only was Bush Jr and his security brouhaha in town, but unusually strong rains made sure that the city was completely and totally jammed. Wed was full too, so I booked Thursday — but on that day the connecting flight to Riyadh was full. Bizarrely, the earliest next flight out on SV or EK was at 4 PM the next day, 21 hours later (!), so there was no choice: I had to overnight. I shed a crocodile tear and rang up local resident F. who promised to take me out to his favorite shisha place.

The flight docked at the rather swanky-looking Terminal 1, but a lengthy sequence of escalators took me over to decrepit old T2 (opened — omg! — almost 10 years ago) for immigration. This time, the queues were mercifully brief, and after a solitary question (“Where are you staying?”) I was stamped in and invited to enjoy my stay. And here’s one thing where other countries should follow the UAE’s lead: absolutely no silly little immigration forms where you have to copy all the information that they can figure out anyway by scanning your passport.

Alas, the taxi scrum was rather longer and an hour from landing had passed by the time I got in the car. I’d opted for the brand new Four Points by Sheraton Downtown, a brand new hotel, and had misgivings about if the cabbie would know where it was… but he did, precisely, and earned a nice tip. The Four Points, incidentally, is the nicest hotel I’ve stayed at for a while: it’s brand new, squeaky clean, super modern, very comfortable, friendly and, by Dubai standards, affordable — my room cost 500 dirhams (~US$150), which, believe it or not, qualifies as a steal in Dubai these days. (I usually stay at Marriotts, but their cheapest property anywhere near the center, the Renaissance, wanted Dhs 1400.) But by the time I checked it, it was 11 PM local time and 4 AM my time, so F and I decided to put the shisha off until tomorrow and I hit the sack.

Morning dawned bright and sunny, and after a pleasant visit to the gym (equipped with a well-stacked Spanish fitness trainer) and a bracing dip in the icy pool (January in Dubai is pretty chilly) I hit the street and started walking towards Dubai Creek. The section of older Dubai along the way was distinctly unflashy, a warren of crumbling concrete, haphazard wiring, oversized signage and fragrant odours that bore more than a little resemblance to India, the home of most of the district’s inhabitants, with nary a thobe in sight. But by sheer coincidence (I had neither map, guidebook nor any idea of its existence), I ended up precisely in the quarter of Bastakia, the solitary chunk of old Dubai that has been expensively restored as a heritage project. It all looked a little too new and perfect to be true, a contrast highlighted by the solitary exhibit of something that was actually old: a remnant of Dubai’s city wall, now a low stretch of roped-off, nondescript rubble.

On the other side of Bastakia is the Creek. I’d had a mental image something along on lines of the Singapore River or Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, with precipitous skyscrapers, expensive restaurants and harried businessmen lining the edges, but no, the buildings were low-rise and nondescript, with few higher than five floors. Abra boats shuttled busily around to the market buildings on the other side, but my side of the river (which did have a pleasant promenade) was largely given over to a neverending procession of increasingly over-the-top river cruise ships of the buffet-and-bellydance variety, with blinking lights, Romanesque pillars and statues in excerably bad taste (now whose bright idea was it to celebrate Arab culture with a life-size bronze of a conquistador?).

Before long I had to return to the hotel and was just checking out when F and his uncle showed up. Once an IT geek like us, Uncle had ditched that career for the evidently rather more lucrative business of designing air conditioning systems, obviously a booming market in the neverending construction site of Dubai. An excellent Lebanese lunch at al-Hallab later, we retired to a nearby shisha shop for a few early afternoon puffs. I was in no hurry to depart, but my flight to Riyadh was, so around 90 minutes before the flight I had to interrupt the stream of Arab hospitality and start making worried noises. We eventually managed to find a taxi company to call, but their driver was permanently 5 minutes away from arriving, and with only an hour to go until flight departure we had to resort to flagging down a cab on the main road (where there aren’t allowed to stop). One kind soul risked a thousand-dirham fine to pick us up and jetted us off to the airport, where I said my hasty goodbyes, brutally cut my way through the security line and arrive at the check-in counter precisely and literally one (1) minute before it closed. The check-in guy even had to check with his manager if the flight was still open, but it was — “You’re the last passenger! So rush!”. Through immigration, though another security point, the endless corridor to the other terminal again, up and up and up and across and, under 20 min before to the departure, to the gate. Phew.

SQ494 SIN-DXB Y B777-300 seat 35H

The flight started off ominously: on all seat-back and cabin screens was a freeze frame from the SQ safety video, showing a little girl with an orange oxygen mask on her face and the caption: “Take care of yourself before attending to others.” Kiasu or what?

That aside, it was another day, another SQ 777 — SQ is the world’s biggest operator of the 777 and unsurprisingly it’s also by an overwhelming majority the most common plane I fly. Fortunately life is made marginally more interesting by the fact that SQ has no less than four variants of this. The pedestrian B777-200 is the workhorse of the regional fleet, with neither on-demand entertainment nor decent business seating. B777-300s like this are a step up, with decent entertainment but still no near-flat seats; it’s only the B777-200ER that introduces the Spacebed in biz, and the still rare B777-300ER (aka “77W” in SQ-ese), which I’ve yet to fly, was SQ’s star until the A380 crashed the party.

But today, something a little out of the ordinary happened. We taxied out from the gate and lined up for our turn to take off… and waited, and waited, and waited some more. Eventually the captain came online: an indicator light for a punctured tire was lit. We taxied back to a safer position, waited for the mechanics to show up, and they eventually confirmed that, yes, a tire was indeed punctured. Nearly two hours after pushback, we arrived back the same gate we’d left from. They guessed 45 minutes to replace the tire, so I headed back to the lounge (T2 this time) for a quick bite and laptop recharge.

After barely 10 minutes in the lounge, it was time to try again, and this time we were off for real. I’d finished my first movie (an enjoyable if brainless Egyptian criminals-fall-in-love romp) by the time dinner rolled around. No Arabic catering here either, I’d had the same ayam rendang (chicken in dry curry) umpteen times before, but I’ve had worse.

And the flight continued. The lights went dark, I played with my laptop a bit, tried to sleep a bit, watched the barely entertaining Rush Hour 3, had a fairly bizarre “refreshment” of a croissant stuffed with salsa, tuna and yoghurt, had the lights go off again, and come back on only 30 minutes before landing. Soon we crossed over the northern tip of the UAE, flew past Dubai, executed a U-turn and came down for a landing, the Palm Jumeirah visible in the distance and the insane lit-up spike of Burj Dubai looking like a computer rendering error in the night-time sky.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore

Unusually enough, I was looking forward to the airport more than the flight itself: this marked my first visit to the spanking new Singapore Changi Terminal 3, officially opened just a week earlier. Aviation geek that I am, I’d already had a sneak peek in the pre-opening “open house”, but this was my first time venturing into airside.

Flights to Dubai actually leave from T2, not T3, but the automated check-in kiosk had no complaints and soon enough I was through the space-age Departures portal. And wow: it’s really airy and spacious inside. The greenery isn’t quite as evident as landside though, with glass, steel and duty-free shopping dominating the show. I beelined for the “Krisflyer Gold Lounge” on the second level, where the poor guardian lady puzzled for a few minutes over my SAS gold card and admittedly rather lengthitudinous full name, painstakingly scribbling them out with pencil on paper and triple-checking the result.

On first sight, the lounge looks small, but actually it’s not: the seating area behind the entry desk is only about a fifth or less of the entire lounge. Soup, salad, rice, a main course, and a selection of desserts were available, along with a small self-serve bar and Tiger beer on tap. Most of the lounge is (how to describe this?) “almost-outside”, with no roof other than the top canopy and partial views of the tarmac due to the shades in the way. Comfy chairs, free wifi, a somewhat less than generous distribution of power points, a couple of PCs and a respectable selection of newspapers completed the offerings, and it’s fair to say that this will be my lounge of choice at SIN as long as I have some time to spare.

And how much time to spare, you say? Well, I experimentally determined that you need at least 10-15 minutes extra to get to T2. There are actually two separate Skytrain routes connecting the two, one at the north end (B-E) and one at the south (A-F), with the lounges are closer to the south end (A gates). However, my gate today was E28, literally at the last extremity of T2 right before T1 starts, and in retrospect it would have been faster to go to T1 and cross it on foot! But no, I ended up taking the longest possible way: walk to the A gate, Skytrain across to T2 F gates, walk across from F to the E area, and then the interminable walk from E20 all the way to E28.

A few more T3 pictures for those interested, mostly taken at the open house: http://jpatokal.iki.fi/photo/travel/Singapore/Changi-T3/

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore, Riyadh and Bali

At a squeak over 10,000 miles, this trip is no great shakes when it comes to distance, but there can’t be too many places on Earth with a greater level of contrast than its endpoints.

In the left corner, we have the virtually untouristed capital of a filthy rich, rigidly conservative, strictly Islamic absolute monarchy in one of the world’s most arid countries:


RUH DAFIF Riyadh [King Khalid Airport], SA

And in the right corner, we have the rather less wealthy yet famously liberal, only notionally Hindu and immensely tourism-friendly tropical paradise of Bali:


DPS DAFIF Denpasar [Ngurah Rai – Bali Intl], Bali, ID

I’m going to one of these for work, and the other for play, so my esteemed readers are invited to guess which one is which. Here’s the exact routing courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper:

SIN-DXB-RUH-DXB-SIN-DPS-SIN

That’s SIN-DXB on Singapore Airlines (SQ) Y, DXB-RUH on Saudi Arabian (SV) Y, and SIN-DPS on SQ C.

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